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Year of the Dragon (1985)

November 17th, 2005 · No Comments

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Politically charged and audacious police procedural pulls no punches in its chronicle of a New York police detective who unleashes a dizzying vendetta against the Chinese triad importing heroin and terrorizing New York’s Chinatown.

Directed by Michael Cimino from a script written in tandem with Oliver Stone (based on the pulp novel by Robert Daley), the film was maligned at the time, but has an impact similar to what The French Connection did in the early 70s. Few cops and robbers flicks since have “done it right” like this one.

Mickey Rourke, playing a grizzled, bigoted Vietnam vet, and John Lone, cast as a well-heeled and highly intelligent gangster, are perfectly matched against each other. Rourke comes off like a scumbag who inexplicably cares about his turf, while Lone is handsome and articulate, but covertly exploiting his community.

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The script has a number of classic Oliver Stone speeches. “You guys remind me of the Chicago Cubs,” Rourke quips to the Chinese gang unit. “You look like you already lost.” The script makes a respectable attempt to explore the relationship between America and the Chinese immigrant. It’s obvious that Stone & Cimino spent a lot of time in Chinatown talking to gangsters and street people. Outside the crime films of Michael Mann, that verisimilitude is remarkably absent in most other films of the genre.

The film has its flaws. Some of the cops and robbers business is the stuff of TV police shows – the undercover agent Rourke recruits is perhaps the most poorly selected narc in film history – and Rourke’s relationship with his estranged wife has a been-there/done-that feel to it as well.

Mention the casting of model Arianne as the female lead and I typically have to mumble. She gives it her best, but has no more business acting.

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Whatever the limitations of the source material, director Cimino swings for the fences visually and connects. He rebuilt blocks of Chinatown on a sound stage in Wilmington, with the graded elevations common to New York but never before reproduced on the flat sound stages of Hollywood. The result is a painstakingly photorealistic world.

The action scenes are vividly lit by Alex Thomson and explosively choreographed. Lone’s sojourn to northern Burma is a brilliant piece of epic filmmaking on par with David Lean. The musical score by David Mansfield – Cimino’s collaborator on Heaven’s Gate – is outstanding. Cimino also uses non-professional actors in many of the minor roles. They’re quite good and bring a rawness and edge to the film.

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